A Group for Secular Students Finds Its Way on a Christian Campus

David Zentz for The Chronicle

Before an abstract sculpture of Martin Luther (known as Enormous Luther), members of the Secular Student Alliance at California Lutheran U. meet peers from other clubs.
February 27, 2011

When Mike Frieda first arrived at California Lutheran University last year, he thought he might have trouble fitting in. He grew up not far from the campus, in Thousand Oaks. But Mr. Frieda calls himself an agnostic atheist—he is willing to say that there is no God, but not that he can prove it—and he wasn't sure how that view would go over.

"When the entire class agrees on a topic and you don't, it's hard to raise your voice," he says.

Then he discovered the Secular Student Alliance. It's part of a rapidly growing network of such organizations on campuses nation­wide, including a few religiously affiliated colleges.

The students who began the group at Cal Lutheran, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, see it as tied to the university's mission, which "encourages critical inquiry into matters of both faith and reason."

The club gained official recognition in early 2009. The national network, which started in 2000, now has some 250 affiliates, including some at col­leges in other countries or at high schools. It has grown quickly, more than doubling the number of its affiliates since 2008.

To be affiliated with the national Secular Student Alliance, clubs have to adhere to its minimum standards. The national group expects clubs to be naturalistic (holding that natu­ral things are the only ones humans can understand), economically neutral, civil-rights-minded, and nondiscriminatory. Beyond that, individual groups have a lot of freedom.

"There are diplomats, and there are firebrands," says August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the national group. While Cal Lutheran's group is on the diplomatic end of the spectrum, many clubs have members with both perspectives, he says, and a few campuses even have two groups.

Plenty of them have become interested in "interfaith" work, like service projects, he says. And the groups often hold panel discussions among people of various faiths and forms of nonfaith.

Cal Lutheran's Secular Student Alliance has gone a step further. The students spend much of their time visiting places of worship and observing events connected to various traditions, including pagan, Unitarian Universalist, and Sikh.

The group's faculty adviser, Bill Bersley, an associate professor of philosophy, is proud of the members' approach. "It was kind of refreshing," he says, "to see they were open enough and curious enough to want to see what the religions teach from the inside."

Wrestling With Religion

The club at Cal Lutheran was formed by a small group of friends who shared similar views and were looking for a sense of community. "When we got started, I think it was very much to create a community for nonreligious students," says Evan Clark, a senior and one of the group's founders, whose experience in student government helped him navigate setting up an official club.

Most of the early members identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, or some combination thereof. But over time, the group has attracted members who are wrestling with religion, and some who continue to be religious and just enjoy being a part of the club.

Having a group like the Secular Student Alliance is important because it can help students sort out who they are, says Jenny Guy, a 2010 graduate who calls herself a secular humanist and was involved in the club. Ms. Guy, whose father is a Methodist minister, began to question religion in high school, a process that included visiting other places of worship, something her dad encouraged.

One group member, Skyler, made the transition from being an "easygoing Lutheran" to being an "easygoing secular humanist" since beginning college. At first, he says, he was nervous about being active in the Secular Student Alliance, since not all of his friends knew he had moved away from his childhood religion. But he says the club has given him moral support.

And Skyler, who compares "coming out" as an atheist to coming out as gay, could use that support. He asked that his last name not be used in this article because he still hasn't told his family about his beliefs.

"You're afraid of disappointing your family, disappointing your parents, not being accepted," he says.

Grant Berg, a 2010 graduate and an original member of the club, found it easier to talk with his family about his views, which also changed during his student years. But moving away from religion changed his experience of college. "When you're an atheist or an agnostic at a religious university, even if your university doesn't promote intolerance or persecute you in some way, it's really hard," he says.

Mr. Berg was a Lutheran whose church gave him a scholarship—about $2,000, as he recalls—when he started at Cal Lu­theran. During college he became an "agnostic atheist humanist," he says, a viewpoint he arrived at after reading about the problem of evil, especially in the Book of Job. Mr. Berg couldn't reconcile the evil in the world with the existence of any God he would want to believe in.

After losing his faith, Mr. Berg also lost some college friends who were religious. And it changed what it felt like to be a Cal Lu­theran student, he says: "It distanced me from feeling a connection with the school that I know a lot of other students feel."

Fitting In

In the beginning, Mr. Clark, who serves as the group's president, and his friends weren't sure how well their club would be received, even though they felt the culture at Cal Lutheran was tolerant.

"I think we're blessed to be on such an open-minded campus," says Mr. Clark, laughing at himself for using the word "blessed." But, he says, there is a flip side: "We also had a lot of fear to be anything other than how we were when we started out."

Sam Lovetro, a senior majoring in sociology who started the club with Mr. Clark, says it took a friendly approach to religion for two reasons. For one thing, on a fairly small campus (about 2,500 undergraduates), the members know their religious classmates as people. Second, because the campus has a religious affiliation, they didn't want to act out against it.

In some ways, being at a college with a religious identity can be helpful, says Molly Clancy, a senior majoring in economics and another of the original members of the club. "At a Lutheran university, it's interesting, because people talk about it more than they would at a public school."

The Rev. Scott J. Maxwell-Doherty, one of two university pastors, appreciates that the Secular Student Alliance took such a measured approach. When he learned about the club, he says, "I received it as a natural maturation of a liberal-arts university."

But not everyone connected to the campus has seen things quite that way, and some people have come to Pastor Maxwell-Doherty with their concerns.

At first, he says, he heard worries from current students, but now most of the questions are from the parents of prospective students. He also hears from some of the convocators, members of the group that expresses Cal Lutheran's vision to outside groups and approves the election of its board members. Most of the convocators are Lutheran, and many are alumni. The university was founded in 1959 (as California Lutheran College), and some convocators remember its earliest days.

"There is honest wonder on their part," he says: "How could the university move in this direction?"

To address such concerns, he talks about the positive experience he, as a campus pastor, has had with the secular students' group. Still, Pastor Maxwell-Doherty, himself a 1976 graduate, can understand the worries. "The school they knew back in the 60s has changed," he says. "But it has not abandoned Christian values."

Embrace and Engage

Not everyone on the campus agrees. Mike Tobin, a senior who attends a non­denominational church, is not surprised by the presence of a group like the Secular Student Alliance but says it's one of many signs that most students on his campus are not invested in religion. "I really honestly think that when it comes down to it, Cal Lutheran is only Lutheran in name," he says. He started a club for Christian students who share his approach to biblical teaching.

Pastor Maxwell-Doherty believes that Christians on campus should be confident enough in their beliefs to embrace and engage with the Secular Student Alliance.

One recent graduate who did just that is Casey Kloehn, a Lutheran who became an active member of the alliance. Ms. Kloehn, a religion major who graduated last year, first came to a club meeting to share a Lutheran perspective. She became more involved because she liked to talk about religion outside of the classroom, wanted to share a "reasonable" religious perspective with nonreligious students, and enjoyed visiting other places of worship.

Still, Ms. Kloehn, who is now at seminary training to be a Lutheran pastor, says many of her friends on the campus did not understand her attraction to the club. "They saw it as a negative experience," she says, "and they were perplexed that I was part of it."

In a few instances, members of the Secu­lar Student Alliance have been heckled at an event, or a fellow student has tried to convert them. But on the whole, the members say, their club has been well received.

And the group members remain active in other campus organizations. Mr. Clark is the best example of this: He is now the student-body president. People point to his election as evidence of the group's acceptance.

It's important to the members of Cal Lutheran's secular group that they show a positive side of nonbelief on their campus. That's why they've avoided holding debates between people from religious and non­religious standpoints, something that groups on many other campuses do, says Mr. Clark. "It's almost like taking the image people have of atheism," he says, "and flipping it on its head."